in From the Archives

Kuhmo Chamber Music: Enjoy!

by Anu Karlson

In the summer 2019, the Kuhmo Chamber Music festival celebrates its 50th anniversary. To congratulate the one-of-a-kind festival, FMQ re-publishes Anu Karlson's article exploring the festival, its history and the"Kuhmo spirit". The article was first published in FMQ 2/1996.

For its part, chamber music needs peace and quiet if it is to sound in all the colours that its composer has infused it with. Finland has quiet, too. There is something so typically Finnish in the chamber music festival that was born in Kuhmo.

A young cellist named Seppo Kimanen, who was studying in Detmold at the time, put pen to paper on April 13th, 1970 and composed a letter to an Kuhmo dentist and member of the local music society. It went something like this:

"The undersigned and a group of young top-flight artists are looking for a place where we could arrange music courses and a chamber music festival in the summer, around the end of July and the beginning of August ... Do you think it would be possible to find the means of realising such a project in Kuhmo? Might you or some other person there be so passionately interested in the idea that you could get something started?"

By the beginning of July, Kimanen's kite was flying. A handful of his student chums started things off in Kuhmo Church with a performance of Telemann's G major Concerto for four violins. The eight-concert event was arranged with a princely initial investment of FIM 700 in the form of a grant from the local council.

For the following year, money was secured not just from Kuhmo but also from the arts committee of the Province of Oulu - a total of FIM 4000. The eleven concerts were attended by around 1350 people, and 22 youngsters attended the music camp. Ten of them were local residents.

Agonies of Choice - a Lathe or a Grand Piano?

The history of the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival tells of heatwave summers when players and audiences, teachers and students alike, all sweated profusely in stuffy school classrooms. In 1976 a group of chamber music fans in the town got together to form the Kuhmo Chamber Music Appreciation Society. Before very long, the local council-members found themselves faced with a tricky policy decision – whether to buy a lathe for the Vocational Training Centre or a grand piano for the Festival. The grand piano won, and it was acquired in time for the following year's gathering, but the process of actually paying for it took several years.

The Festival's reputation spread rapidly. The foreign artists who had been persuaded to take part in the early years flew home and told their colleagues in enthusiastic tones - some of them were little short of spellbound - what a delight it had been. With the jungle telegraph set in motion, Kimanen and his fellows had no great difficulties in luring even big-name artists to come and experience the "miracle of Kuhmo" for themselves. Kuhmo also played host to a number of major international composers, most of whom brought along new works to be performed.

Not surprisingly, Kuhmo's example has spawned similar events in Finland and abroad. Gideon Kremer made his first visit in 1979, and he wasted little time, founding his own "Kuhmo-esque" chamber music festival in Austria's Lockenhausen two years later.

From a week-long festival in the early days, the event gradually expanded – first to ten days, then to the present fortnight. The State joined the list of financial supporters in 1975, and in 1995 the overall budget for the festival had risen to nearly FIM 5 million.

Seppo Kimanen stresses the importance for the festival of joining the Finland Festivals chain. The immediate consequence was that Kuhmo came under the wing of the Ministry of Education's grant system, and there was also a good deal of media interest.

To Be or Not to Be?

When the figures were added up after the 1980 festival, it became clear that ticket sales were no longer sufficient to cover the costs of the event. Seppo Kimanen saw two possible choices: either to reduce the size of the festival or enlarge it.

"Downsizing would inevitably have led to the gradual dying-off of the whole event. We were miles from any large centres of population; there had to be some specific reason to come all the way to Kuhmo. So we expanded both the length of the festival and the number of concerts, and it turned out to be the right solution. People began to arrive in larger and larger numbers, both from within Finland and from abroad, too."

In 1977, after a brief hesitation, Seppo Kimanen accepted an invitation to nm the Helsinki Festival. Back in Kuhmo, the helm was passed to Kimanen's wife, the violinist Yoshiko Arai-Kimanen. Seppo left Helsinki after two years and returned to Kuhmo once more as artistic director, but he regards his brief outflanking manoeuvre in the capital as an important phase for Kuhmo, too.

"I had the chance to familiarize myself with arts organizations all over the world – not just music, but other branches of the arts as well. These contacts and the perspectives I got on artistic life were a great source of strength when I came back to Kuhmo in 1980."

The Concert Hall as Instrument

One of the sustaining ideas as the 1980s turned into the '90s was the hope of getting a purpose-built hall for chamber music in Kuhmo.

The hall was opposed on both economic and emotional grounds: it was feared that the free Kuhmo spirit would be caged in a standardized concert hall environment. Seppo Kimanen is quick to point out that the Festival would have taken the matter seriously enough, even if there had been rather fewer screams of protest.

"We know it isn't walls that make a festival, just as not even the finest instrument plays by itself. A good instrument is the medium that a musician needs to bring out all the rich nuances of his art to the public ear. And the same goes for a hall."

The assembly hali of Kontio School did have its good properties. For a start, it was like a giant living-room, in which the audience could listen to concerts at the feet of the artists on the low platform stage. But the non-existent air conditioning system (and Finland CAN be a lot hotter in July than you probably imagine) and the inadequate backstage facilities often forced artists to perform under conditions where they could not really give of their best. Now that the Festival has expanded still further, some of the concerts can still be placed in the Kontio School Hall, perhaps simultaneously with others in the new Arts Centre's Lentua Hall, with the audience even able to shuttle back and forth between the two venues between numbers.

The Much-Discussed Spirit of Kuhmo

So, what is it that is so unique about Kuhmo? What sets this event apart from other music festivals?

The first thing of course is geography. Kuhmo is a long way from ... Well, it's a long way from ANYWHERE, really, whether you start from Paris, or Helsinki, or even from Oulu at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia. If you travel by car you have to go through a couple of hundred kilometres of what appears to be completely uninhabited forest landscape: stand after stand of pines and firs as far as the eye can see, and gradually more and more tree-covered hills as you go further north.

But there is more to it than that. One regular Kuhmo-goer argues that the secret of the festival is that in the planning of the concerts it is the wishes of the performers that come first. When the artists on the stage experience something rare and strange in their playing together – and believe me, you can SEE it when it happens – then it is impossible for this state of bliss not to be transmitted directly to the audience in the hall, Seppo Kimanen admits that at least one side of this claim is true.

"Since I am myself an active musician, I tend instinctively to think of things from the artist's viewpoint. I find it downright shocking that in the design of a modern concert hall you might find the artists' quarters stuck down in some windowless basement, or that in the planning of a concert programme the organizers feel their only responsibility is to make sure the musicians get paid their fees.

At the same time, Kimanen does not accept that the audience in Kuhmo is somehow a secondary consideration.

"As the planner of the Festival, I work in rather the same way as a picture-hanger at an art exhibition. At an exhibition, every one of the walls and rooms in the gallery has to be used in such a way that the pictures don't obstruct one another but so that each accentuates and supports the next, and so that the movement of the audience from one picture to the next happens naturally. Shifting from one room to another, the visitor keeps coming face to face with new experiences. He doesn't want to step out of this charmed circle, but goes through all the rooms one after another."

People don't come to Kuhmo to hear stars, they come for the music. And yet many of the artists on the bill ARE at the very top of their profession. In many cases, Kimanen has won himself a huge advantage by discovering artists when they are not yet household names. By looking after them well, he has got them to return happily to Kuhmo even after they are.

Theme and Variations

Seppo Kimanen generally builds his festival around three or four themes that produce a kind of interactive circuit when they are set alongside one another. In the course of a single day there might be four different concerts, but over a week you can get, for example, a good overall picture of Haydn as a composer of string quartets. So there is diversity in the vertical plane, and continuity in the horizontal.

"Since chamber works are more limited in the dynamics and the number of shades on offer than symphonic music, I like to play stylistically and intellectually with contrasts and opposites. I use at least three – if not four – centuries of European music to achieve these ends."

And so, if one thread is Haydn's relationship to Mozart, other supporting themes might be Schumann and Brahms, and there will be a lot of modern music on offer as well. Kuhmo Chamber Music commissions a number of works each year for first performances during the Festival, and the composers take up the challenge willingly, since they know their music will always get a first-class performance from the Kuhmo artists.

Kuhmo goes London

Kuhmo itself cannot be moved elsewhere, but its Chamber Music Festival has paid visits to other locations, and with great success. The "resident ensembles", such as the Kuhmo Chamber Soloists and Kuhmo Virtuosi, have demonstrated in their performances the Kuhmo way of making music. At the end of 1995, Seppo Kimanen went a step further and arranged a short festival in London's Wigmore Hall along the lines of Kuhmo Chamber Music.

"We had nine concerts, and above all we wanted to provide a sample of our way of putting together a programme and selecting artists. For every individual work there is the ideal player, and he or she may not be the best-known in the world. There is a certain spiritual oneness between a given work and its performer. This is an essential part of the Kuhmo spirit."

Carnival of the Soul

Kuhmo Chamber Music this year chalks up its 27th appearance on the festival calendar. Although there are many new faces each year among the audiences, there are also numerous old faithfuls who come to Kuhmo – at least for a couple of days – every time.

"If you really want to succeed, then it can be done on sheer willpower for something like five years", says Kimanen. "But if you want to succeed for ten years and more, then you really have to throw all of yourself into it, especially in a place like Kuhmo, where people have to come from far afield. The Festival has to shed its skin and grow another every year, it has to be constantly creating new ideas and a new expression." 

"A festival should be a step outside of the everyday and its routines. In the old days they used to spend a whole week on a wedding or on the harvest festival celebrations; now Kuhmo is as if keeping up that old tradition. There are undoubtedly also features of the carnival about Kuhmo Chamber Music. It's just that this carnival doesn't take place in the external swings and carousels, but in the human soul.”

Kuhmo Chamber Music on 14–27 July, 2019 - for the 50th time!

See also Music Finland's guide to Finnish summer festivals 2019 here.

This article was first published in FMQ 2/1996 and is now re-published with the kind permission of the author. 

Featured photo: Kuhmo Arts Center. Photo by Stefan Bremer / Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival.